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Gosforth Northumbria Whirlwind (Part 1)

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

We said tearful au revoirs to Edie Rue, Mackerel, and Ginger, and promptly zoomed off to Newcastle-on-Tyne, where Robin had arranged a short sit.

Our charge was the divine Belle (or Bella). She was 18 years old with a big personality, although she was camera shy. She had only 3 legs and half a tail, and was the tiniest, boniest cat I’ve ever stroked in my life. I hope we did right by her in the small time we had together (I tried my best).

We crammed a lot into the timeframe of this sit and saw a lot of places (hence, this newsletter will be split into two parts).

Every day on our way to and from sightseeing during this sit, I would see signs for “Gosforth.”

It became a running joke in my mind that this was our mantra for the sit: Goes Forth. Because everyday we would “Gos Forth.”

Our first day’s outing entailed a trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Durham Cathedral, also known as The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and Saint Cuthbert of Durham—which has been high on my list of cathedrals to visit for a very long time. It is legendary.

Durham was 25 miles away, so not terribly far. Robin did some astute advance planning, arranging for us to have a one-hour tour followed by a visit to the cathedral museum.

While reviewing the cathedral’s eligibility for UNESCO status, the committee reported, "Durham Cathedral is the largest and most perfect monument of 'Norman' style architecture in England." This cathedral is not only one of the most magnificent religious buildings in Britain, but in the world. This made it worth the long drive and then some.

Mike Duffy was our wonderful guide, and we hung on his every word. He was a former schoolteacher, and probably has ISTJ preferences. Accordingly, his history lessons were amazing, entailing saints, kings, and adventures. Let me see whether I can distill them for you (prepare for a deluge of history).

Durham Cathedral was founded in 995 AD by monks from Lindisfarne. They fled their island home when Vikings began plundering it in surprise raids. The monks needed a home for the relics of Saint Cuthbert and went off seeking a suitable site.

The story goes that when the monks bearing Saint Cuthbert's coffin came to the area where Durham now stands, they rested on a hilltop. But when they attempted to resume their journey, they found their wagon was stuck and were mysteriously unable to move another step.

For 3 days they were immobilized, until an image of Cuthbert materialized in a vision to one of the monks. The saintly vision instructed the monk to carry his coffin to “Dun Holm.”

The monks had no idea where or what this instruction signified, when suddenly a milkmaid appeared, searching for her “dun cow,” which had last been seen at a place called “Dun Holm.” Dun in this case refers to a dull grayish-brown color.

The monks followed this milkmaid toward the nearby hilltop of Dunholm—or Durham—where they established Saint Cuthbert’s final resting place on the cliffs overlooking the River Wear, according to the Saint's will. There they built a wooden shelter to house his remains.

Soon Durham became a leading pilgrimage site, encouraged by the growing cult of Saint Cuthbert. Their defensible position, the flow of money from pilgrims, and the power embodied in the church at Durham all encouraged the formation of a town to spring up around the cathedral, which ultimately established the inner core of the city.

A bishop pulled down the church built by Cuthbert's followers when the present Norman-era cathedral's construction was begun in 1093, which morphed over time into the amazing cathedral we toured on Tuesday.

One of the reasons we know as much as we do about Saint Cuthbert’s life is due to another important historical figure: the Venerable Bede.

Oh, so much can be said about Bede! He was an author, teacher, scholar, and his most famous work earned him the title: "The Father of English History." His reputation as a historian is unrivaled, and he is remembered today as the earliest English historian. He was one of the greatest teachers and writers of the early Middle Ages and is considered to be the most important scholar of antiquity for 200 years, writing or translating some 40 books on practically every area of knowledge, including nature, astronomy, and poetry.

In 1899, Pope Leo XIII declared him a Doctor of the Church for his theological writings—the only native of Great Britain to achieve this designation. From reading the encyclopedia entries about him, he seems for all the world to have enjoyed _STJ preferences, and brought them to bear on his significant work.

Bede’s body was “translated” (an ecclesiastical term for the relocation of relics) to Durham Cathedral around the year 1020, where he was placed into the same tomb along with Saint Cuthbert. Then in 1370, Bede's remains were moved to a shrine in the rear chapel. That shrine was destroyed during the English Reformation, but his bones were reburied inside the chapel. In 1831 the bones were dug up again and then reburied once more in a new tomb, seen below.

Bede is purported to have composed a five-line poem on his deathbed, known as "Bede's Death Song."

Facing Death, that inescapable journey, who can be wiser than he who reflects, while breath yet remains, on whether his life brought others happiness or pains, since his soul may yet win delight's or night's way after his death-day.

A legend claims the monk who was engraving his tomb became stuck for an epithet. He had gotten as far as Hac sunt in fossa Bedae ... ossa ("Here in this grave are the bones of ... Bede") before heading off to bed. In the morning he discovered an angel had inserted the word venerabilis [venerable].

All of this background on Bede leads us back to Saint Cuthbert himself. Who was that guy?

​​Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (c. 634–687 AD) was an Anglo-Saxon saint in the Celtic tradition. He was a monk, bishop, and hermit who became a popular medieval saint, and is regarded as the patron saint of Northumbria. He was a venerated religious figure and successful preacher responsible for the spread of Christianity in the north of England. He has been described as the most popular saint in England prior to the death of Thomas Becket.

His asceticism was complemented by his charm and generosity to the poor, and his reputation for gifts of healing and insight led many to consult him, gaining him the nickname of "Wonder Worker of Britain." He practiced missionary work and traveled the breadth of the country to carry out pastoral duties.

During the medieval period, Cuthbert became politically important in defining the identity of the people living in Northumbria, and he gained a reputation for being fiercely protective of his domain. After Cuthbert's death, numerous miracles were attributed to his intercession and to intercessory prayer near his remains.

Many of these miracles are cataloged in great detail here:

Quite a lot happened to Cuthbert’s remains over the ensuing centuries. (This has been called “the two lives of Cuthbert.”)

First, Cuthbert was buried in a stone coffin inside the main church on Lindisfarne Island. People came and prayed at the grave, and then miracles of healing were reported. To the monks on Lindisfarne, this was a clear sign that Cuthbert was now a saint in heaven and they, as the saint's community, must declare this to the world.

His fellow monks allowed 11 years for his body to become a skeleton, at which point they planned to “elevate” his remains on the anniversary of his death. During the intervening years, the beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels book was made in preparation for the great ceremony of the elevation. The declaration of Cuthbert's sainthood was intended to be celebrated as a day of joy and thanksgiving.

It turned out to be a day of surprise—even shock—for when they opened the coffin they found no skeleton but instead a complete and undecayed body, perfectly preserved (called “incorrupt”), which was a traditional attribute of sainthood.

(Another explanation might be that his body was embalmed using spices and waxed cloth—a surprisingly effective treatment that can keep a corpse looking lifelike for many years.) He was reburied in a decorated oak coffin, apparently enclosing the original one, and his remains were elevated to a coffin-shrine at ground level. This marked the beginnings of the cult of Saint Cuthbert, which was to change the course of Lindisfarne Island’s history.

Miracles were soon reported at Saint Cuthbert’s shrine, and Lindisfarne became established as the major pilgrimage center in Northumbria. As a result, the monastery grew in power and wealth, attracting grants of land from kings and nobles as well as gifts of money and precious objects. Saint Cuthbert rested here undisturbed for nearly 200 years.

The first few months of the year 793 AD were troubling times. Anglo-Saxon writers described how “immense whirlwinds, flashes of lightning and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air.” They supposed these aerial phenomena were portents of imminent disaster.

Sure enough, a great famine followed. But worse was yet to come. On June 8, it was recorded that “heathen men came and miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter.” These were the Vikings, who took the island unawares.

The monks were totally unprepared; some were killed; some younger boys were taken away to be sold as slaves; gold and silver was stolen; and the monastery partly burned down. After that, the monastery lived under threat as more attacks occurred, and over a century the population slowly emigrated to the mainland in self-defense.

The traditional date given for the final abandonment of Lindisfarne is 875 AD.

The body of Saint Cuthbert, together with relics and treasures which survived the Viking attack, were carried by the monks and villagers onto the mainland, seeking a suitable new home.

After seven years of wandering, they found a resting place in Chester-le-Street for 100 years, until yet another Viking invasion led to a departure to Ripon. After a few months at Ripon, Cuthbert was once more carted off by the monks with the intention of returning the saint to Chester-le-Street… but the cart got stuck on the way there.

And this is where we pick up the story of the “dun cow,” which then led them to Durham, where they established Cuthbert’s final resting place.

But the story doesn’t end there!

After the Norman Conquest in 1066, a Benedictine community built the Norman cathedral where they planned to honor the relics of Saint Cuthbert with a new shrine east of the high altar. In 1069–70 the Durham monks returned briefly to Lindisfarne with Saint Cuthbert’s relics to escape the “harrying of the North” by William the Conqueror's armies, which sought to suppress northern resistance to the Norman Conquest.

Building of the cathedral in Durham continued, and when the place was ready and waiting for him in 1104, Cuthbert returned.

At this point, Cuthbert had been dead for 418 years. Suffering from doubts about Cuthbert's undecayed body, the Durham monks opened the coffin and found—so it was said—the body was indeed smelling sweet and still uncorrupt.

The remains of Saint Cuthbert were “translated” with great ceremony to the new shrine in the new cathedral—an elaborate monument of cream marble and gold—and the monks continued to look after Saint Cuthbert. Throughout the Middle Ages it was visited by great numbers of pilgrims, making Durham the major pilgrimage center of the north of England, and Cuthbert the most famous saint. A monk wrote of it: “[The shrine] was estimated to be one of the most sumptuous in all England, so great were the offerings and jewells bestowed upon it, and endless the miracles that were wrought at it.”

Commissioners of Henry VIII were sent to destroy the tomb during the Reformation in 1537. The monastery was dissolved, this shrine dismantled, and the coffin reopened—and it seems the body was still complete and uncorrupted.

The monks were allowed to bury him in the ground under where his shrine had been before they were disbanded.

In 1827, the coffin was again opened and this time a skeleton swathed in decayed robes was found. Objects inside the coffin were removed and can currently be seen in the cathedral treasury, along with up to four layers of coffin fragments which have been partially reconstructed. Those human remains were reburied.

In 1899 the coffin was again opened and a medical doctor carried out a post-mortem on the remains. His opinion was that the skeleton was consistent with all that was known of Saint Cuthbert in his lifetime.

These human remains were re-interred in the same place and marked by a plain gravestone with the name Cuthbertus (see below).

The tomb of Saint Cuthbert is approached by mounting stairs onto an enclosed, elevated platform, and this shrine is still the site of many pilgrimages today.

The cathedral’s quire features a collection of misericords, but we weren’t allowed to see them due to their fragility. A cathedral official told us they were due for restoration sometime in the future and gently lifted one up to show us, but that peek was all we got.

We were awed by the beautiful cathedra (Bishop’s chair) situated at the top of a flight of stairs. This is probably the most elevated cathedra we have ever seen, and we have seen plenty of them.

The cathedra was built in 1371, followed a few years later by the installation of the surrounding screen. This ornately carved screen was created in France and shipped to Newcastle, brought in sections to Durham, and then reassembled inside the cathedral.

Although not Gothic, three innovations of the revolutionary Gothic style all come together in this essentially Norman building: pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses (hidden above the aisle vaults). It is a delightful pastiche of style and elegance. Durham is one of the high points of cathedral architecture in this or any other land.

Upstairs, inside the cathedral museum we viewed many fascinating artifacts contained in what was originally the medieval monks dormitory, dating to 1404 and still with its original oak beam ceiling. This dormitory now holds the cathedral's impressive collection of Anglo-Scandinavian hogback grave markers and marvelous collection of early Christian stonework.

We descended into the Treasury and viewed important relics pertaining to Saint Cuthbert and otherwise.

Photography was not allowed, and I urge you to click on the link below and scroll down slightly to survey the ancient remains of Saint Cuthbert’s remarkable casket.

The innermost of three coffins was made of incised wood showing Jesus surrounded by the four Evangelists, and as the only decorated wood to survive from the period, it is well worth seeing.

Upon our departure, we took a few moments to appreciate what has been called “the most photographed knocker in England,” a magnificent symbol of the cathedral's political role in medieval times.

This sanctuary ring on the front door features a bronze head of a lion haloed by its mane who is devouring a man whose legs are being eaten by snakes (a “Hellmouth”) dating back to the 12th century.

Those who “had committed a great offense,” such as murder in self-defense or breaking out of prison, could rap the knocker, and they would be given 37 days of sanctuary within which to try to reconcile with their enemies or plan their escape. (I’ve written about the Right to Sanctuary previously.)

The cathedral’s entrance originally had two small chambers above the doorway with windows where monks would sit and keep watch for sanctuary seekers in order to let them in promptly, at any time of the day or night.

Whenever someone sought sanctuary, a bell was rung. The sanctuary seeker would be given a black robe to wear with Saint Cuthbert’s Cross sewn on its left shoulder to distinguish them as one who had been granted sanctuary by God and his saint. They would be kept in an enclosure separated from the rest of the church and provided food, drink, bedding, and other necessities at the abbey’s expense until the person’s safe departure from the diocese could be arranged.

This Right to Sanctuary was abolished in 1624.

On our way “home,” we took a brief detour to view the magnificent Angel of the North sculpture. The Angel of the North is a gigantic steel image of an angel, commissioned by the city of Gateshead and designed by sculptor Antony Gormley. Completed in 1998 it dominates the skyline.

Visible from two nearby roads, not to mention the railway line that links London and Edinburgh, this sculpture attracts over 30 million visitors per year. Yes, it looks like an airplane and its wingspan is actually wider than a Boeing 757. Robin narrated a 2:41 video of it, which can be found here:

The following day, we visited Newcastle’s own local cathedral, the Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas, named after the patron saint of sailors and boats. The current building was completed in 1350 and so it is mostly of the Perpendicular style of the 14th century, with a fabulous 15th century lantern spire overhead. For hundreds of years, that spire was a main navigation point for ships using the River Tyne.

The quire features 26 beautifully carved misericords that are accessible to the public. While they were actually carved in the 19th century, they closely resemble traditional medieval misericords in their style and content. Photos of them can be viewed here:

Once again, Robin shot a 4:16 narrated video of the quire:

And that was our lovely, satisfying trip to Durham Cathedral... but you won't believe what happens next!

In the meantime, I'm delighted to say that the latest edition of Psychological Perspectives has just come available, with yours truly as Senior Editor.

The topic of the issue is “Compassionate Witnessing,” and you can purchase a copy of it at this link:

In and around all this busyness, I managed to squeak in some Zoom trainings—the most delicious was “A Jungian Approach to Spontaneous Drawings,” presented through the Los Angeles Jung Institute. I gained some new ideas and fun tools to use with clients. Overall, it seems as though Jung and art and psyche are hot right now… and I’m lapping it up!

And that's where I'll end this week's missive, even though a lot more is waiting to be told.

Keep an eye out for part 2 of this saga next week!

warmly, -Dr. Vicky Jo

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